Roger Brown (1941–1997) died a decade after his retrospective opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (August 13, 1987–October 18, 1987), and traveled to three other museums, none of which were on the East Coast or in a densely populated urban center. More surprising, the show didn’t travel to Chicago, where Brown first gained attention and with which he is associated.
The catalog, which was edited by the exhibition curator, Sidney Lawrence, and to which I contributed the only essay, remains the single largest monograph on Brown. While more than a decade has passed since the artist’s death at fifty-six, thirteen years after his partner, the award-winning architect George Veronda died in 1984, at the age of forty-two, there has been no large museum show, no second look and no movement to revive him. An openly gay artist who dealt with specific historical and political events — from the mass suicide at Jonestown to the murderer John Wayne Gacy — Brown exists in a weird limbo, neither invisible nor visible.
I began thinking about Brown’s near invisibility when I went to his exhibition at DC Moore, his second at this spacious New York gallery, of paintings spanning from 1978 to 1995, with the majority done during the ’80s and ’90s. I thought about his reputation again while reading Raphael Rubinstein’s recent article, “Neo-Expressionism (Not) Remembered” (January, Art in America), in which the author claims it is time to reexamine “the still underrated [Julian] Schnabel … ”
Since I didn’t join the club and praise Schnabel during the ’80s, but I did write about Brown, I find the recent attempts to elevate the former rather interesting, especially since they all seem to have begun after his last film, Miral (2011), proved a box office and critical flop. In fact, once I realized that I wasn’t sure what the film was about, and no one I know has ever mentioned seeing it, I decided I should read some reviews.
The following passage caught my eye when I read A.O. Scott’s New York Times review:
Like so many other well-intentioned movies about politically contentious issues, it is hobbled by its own sincerity and undone by a confused aesthetic agenda. A grand, complex human drama is reduced to platitudes and pretty pictures, as some fine actors become ciphers of suffering and resilience in a strained and superficial pageant.
And then later on in the review, Scott inadvertently writes what could be the best summary of Schnabel paintings I have come across:
For the most part, though, the film combines flat-footed storytelling with florid and distracting technique, producing more bafflement than catharsis or illumination.
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Despite the obvious differences, Brown and Schnabel have a deep interest in pageantry. Brown’s interest in spectacle troubles many viewers, perhaps because it touches a nerve rather than puts forward a display of overweening self-regard. Whereas Schnabel’s paintings strike me as epic advertisements for a throbbing oversized ego, Brown maintains a rather cool and even distanced approach to disquieting subject matter.
In an early painting, “Untitled (Theater Interior),” 1968, which is not in the DC Moore show but was in his Hirshhorn exhibition, Brown established the foundation upon which he would build the rest of his nearly three-decade career. The modestly scaled painting, with a dark green curtain-like frame made of wood, depicts the interior of a movie theater with most of the seats empty. On the screen is a blonde seen in profile. Behind her is a bed. A small of group of men are watching what is most likely a pornographic film in what I guess would be the middle of the afternoon.
It seems to me that Brown understood the collision between intensely private experiences (watching movies in a darkened room) and spectacle (the movie that America was rapidly becoming). I doubt he would be comforted by America’s ongoing obsession with glamour and diamond studded superficiality.
Whether Brown was depicting landscapes, urban scenes, or portraits, he often used isometric perspective to establish a stage-like setting. This enabled him to tilt the ground plane (or stage), upon which he located his silhouetted figures, upward until it nearly spanned the entire height of the painting. Giorgio de Chirico, Giovanni di Paolo, Persian and Indian miniatures, outsider artists such as Joseph Yoakum (whose work he collected) and American Regionalists (Grant Wood) influenced him.
Starting in the late 1960s, when he first started showing in Chicago, Brown made no attempt to fit into the New York art world, and even satirized Minimalism and Neo-Expressionism in a number of his paintings. One painting — which perfectly evokes the feverish excitement that permeated the art world at that time — has the memorable title, “Silly Savages (We will Sell No Painting before It’s Dry” (1983). Perhaps this is why the New York art world never let him in and should — his dissident vision.
Brown’s diminutive silhouettes (or the viewer/witness) are descendants of Giorgio de Chirico’s young girl playing with a hoop. And, like de Chirico, Brown’s best work is about place, be it a fishing boat on a lake or a manicured field above which a huge dollar sign (made out of smog?) is floating.
Silhouettes are isolated from the world they inhabit. Long before Guy Debord’s theory of spectacle had an impact in the art world, Brown recognized that much of America was made up of passive observers who expressed shock or displeasure, but seldom were motivated beyond that. We had become tourists in our lives.
Although there is strong streak of criticism in Brown’s work, he is not without his moments of tenderness and humor. Painted the year after Veronda died, “Arrangement in Blue and Gray: The Artist and His Friend Fishing” (1985) shows a tiny boat in the distance, on the horizon, beneath a pattern of ominous, dark, pillow-like clouds. A beam of light shines through them, encircling the boat and the two figures in it. For the moment they are together and safe.
For all their simplicity — something Brown strived to achieve — his best paintings are not simple, but they can be surprising. Who else could have done “Self Portrait in Alabama with Hank Williams and Truman Capote” (1988), depicting himself next to the sensitive heterosexual who wrote “I’m so lonesome I could cry” and the openly gay author of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), with its notorious author’s photo, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1965), making no hierarchy among them?
Roger Brown is on view at DC Moore Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, 2nd floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 2.
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